Gracious God, open our hearts to receive your call and your promise this Advent season. In this time of worship and Sabbath, may we entrust our burdens and worries to your grace and lay aside the to do lists and things that fill our minds so we may simply rest in your presence and focus our attention on trusting in your love. Amen.
The story of hope is perhaps as old as humanity itself. Ever since we became self-aware and realized that life is complicated, and we noticed that how things are and how things could be are often different… ever since, we have engaged in the work of hope – the work of striving to stay hopeful in the facing of trying circumstances and the work of imagining hopeful alternatives and hopeful futures.
It’s part of human nature, I think, to hope. We hope for a good life for ourselves, for our loved ones, for friends and our communities. When we face struggles, we hope to find a way through it. Sometimes we hope that there will be an end in sight to our struggle.
But hope is more than just wishful thinking. It is deeper than that. And hope is not only about the future. It is about looking for and trusting in God’s goodness in the present moment.
Way, way back in the 8thcentury BC the prophet Isaiah of Jerusalem longed for things to be different in his homeland of Judah. The kings and people of Judah had lost their way. They had neglected the poor, the orphan, and the widow. The society they had built had not lived up to their best expectations. They’d forgotten some of their responsibilities. And, most of all, they had neglected their covenantal promises to God. And now the threat of conquest by the powerful Assyrian Empire also loomed large on the horizon.
Isaiah imagined that the once great, united monarchy of David and Solomon had been like a mighty tree, strong, sturdy, and powerful. But it had been cut down, splintered actually, piece by piece, until only the stump remained… the stump of Jesse, he called it, named after David’s father.
Is this just dead wood, Isaiah wondered? Or could new life spring forth from it? Do we dare hope that it might?
Well, Isaiah did come down on the side of hope when he proclaimed that “a shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.”
Isaiah came down on the side of hope when he put forth this vision that a new and faithful leader for his people would arise and that “the spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.”
Isaiah hoped that God would bring forth a new descendant of David who would be the just and faithful king his people needed. He hoped that all of Judah could be restored, redeemed, and find their way again, along with their God. He hoped that they could be free of external imperial control.
Now, not all of Isaiah’s hopes came to pass. And not all of his hopes unfolded in the way he expected. But that he dared to hope says something about his faith in God’s goodness and his faith in God’s promise of relationship with his people.
Isaiah dared to put forth a hopeful vision of a peaceable kingdom where children and animals (both wild and domestic) would live together in harmony.
Sure, it may seem a little unrealistic. Wolves and lambs living together; bears and cows grazing together; babies and toddlers playing with snakes and not being bitten. But it is a metaphor that testifies to the power of God who can make a new creation (who can make new growth shoot up from an old, seemingly dead stump). And it is a testament to the will of God to be in relationship with a world where all God’s creatures are well, and safe, and have their needs met. If God is the great shepherd of the global pasture, then maybe God the shepherd can even tame the wolves and bears that threaten the flock and can convince them to become vegetarians, grazing alongside the sheep.
Isaiah’s hope is not really just about the animal kingdom, of course. That’s symbolic. Isaiah’s real hope is that people who prey on other people will be turned away from their predatory ways. Isaiah’s hope was for the redemption of the society he knew and the community he lived in. And Isaiah trusted that God had not and would not abandon the world because God wills our collective salvation.
Isaiah didn’t know how or when God would make all things new, but he trusted that God would. And he trusted that when God did this, the whole earth would be as “full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” All creation would be living in God and with God. And none would be left out.
So many years ago Isaiah dared to hope for this vast fullness of a loving relationship with God, made manifest in a just and peaceful existence for all the earth. Do we dare to hope for as grand a vision?
This season of Advent asks this question of us. Advent is not only a countdown to the celebration of Christmas. If we let it, Advent can invite us into some quieter and deeper reflection. It is a season that invites us not only to remember the past, but also to consider our deepest hopes for our present world, for our future, for the future God dreams of for all creation.
Advent invites us to ponder the promise of God Emmanuel, the God who dwells with us, who knows us, who showed us divine love, incarnate in the person of Jesus, who is with us still as the Holy Spirit – abiding in our hearts, experienced in our relationships, alive in creation, and dwelling wherever love dwells.
This is not just about past hopes of those who went before us. This promise of God can give us so much hope now if we let it, hope even in the toughest times.
In Advent, we are invited to lean into this hope, to live into this hope, to let ourselves be transformed by hope. Often hope is the first step to transformation, I think – personal transformation or bigger social transformation. Without hope, it’s sure hard to take another step; it’s sure hard to keep trying to make a change for the better, or to believe that we can make a difference.
Hope is so much deeper than a wish. It is faith. It is trust. It is a refusal to give into despair. It is a motivator to get going or keep going – in life, in the journey of faith, in work for justice and peace, and in service to others.
And so I think it is appropriate that somewhere along the way someone decided that the first candle on the Advent wreath should be lit in honor of hope and in proclamation of hope. Lighting these candles is a symbolic act of faith we do to proclaim that the light hasn’t gone out yet. God’s light, the light of Christ, that old, old light still shines on. And we begin with a candle of hope.
We may be nearly 3,000 years removed from Isaiah of Jerusalem, over 2,000 years removed from Jesus of Nazareth, but the eternal light of God connects us with the hope of a prophet and the presence of Christ and so many others since.
And so we have become light-bearers for our generation, for our world. And we carry forward Isaiah’s hope for redemption, hope for new life, hope for a just and peaceful world, hope for God’s love to be experienced, hope for transformation to take root from old growth and spring up in our midst.
And each week we light new candles… a candle to proclaim God’s peace that surpasses our human understanding… a candle to proclaim our deep joy that moves us to praise and thanksgiving… a candle to proclaim God’s fierce love that doesn’t quit… and finally a candle to proclaim our faith in Christ – the one who embodied all these things, the one who lived all these things, the one who showed ushow to live into hope, how to live into peace, how to live into joy, how to live into love. And then we share that light until all our faces are aglow with the radiance of God’s love that shines on, even into places of darkness, and won’t be overcome.
And it all starts with hope. It all starts with daringto hope, as Isaiah did, that redemption is possible, that new life is possible, that God is still at work, and that God is still calling us to get to work too.
Some days it feels as though the world is just too noisy with antagonism and aggression for words of hope, and humility, and love to be heard. But we can’t let these voices be drowned out.
So, as we enter into this season of Advent, what do you hope for?
What might be on your “Grown Up Christmas List?” You know the song, I’m sure (it’s been on the radio for a few weeks already)! Amy Grant’s version might be the most popular, but Natalie Cole recorded the original.
No more lives torn apart. No more wars. Healed hearts. Friendship for all. Unending love. Whether or not you like the song (and I know it’s a bit schmaltzy for some), the list does touch on some of our perennial hopes and longings as a human family.
So, what’s your list? What are your biggest and deepest hopes for the world? You don’t have to know how or when they’ll be accomplished. This list can become a prayer. And perhaps listing our hopes, praying our hopes, might help us discern how, at this point in our lives, we might give of our time, energy, and resources in support of these hopes.
Here are a few of mine:
I hope that God will continue to use me and use our church community to be a source of hope and a source of compassion and help for those who are hurting.
I hope that compassion, love, and rational behavior will take precedence over fear, aggression, and hate in our national discourse around immigration and our treatment of immigrants.
I hope that the medical community will continue to make advances in the treatment and eventual cure of the diseases that cause such suffering and have taken so many of our friends and loved ones.
I hope that we will learn to love creation more fully and do what we can to address the root causes of climate change before it’s too late.
I hope that all children will receive a good education, have enough to eat, a place to call home, and receive good health care.
I hope that all people who have been told that they are somehow less than beautiful, less than whole, less than welcome (for whatever reason) will know and feel that they are beautiful, whole, and welcome just as they are.
And I hope that this community will continue to grow even deeper with love and mutual support and broader with new connections and friendships.
Those are some of mine. Maybe you want to make your own list this Advent. Maybe you want to find a way to symbolically offer it to God in prayer.
And, as we enter into this Advent season together, I want to thank you for the ways you inspire hope in me (because you do).
And so, as you walk through this holy season, may you remember the hope of the prophet Isaiah who trusted in God’s transforming love. And may you remember the embodied hope of God who came to be born as one of us, to live with us, to bring God’s transforming love into our midst in a new way.
For that old stump isn’t dead yet. New sprouts are still peeking out of the dry wood. And it’s still growing. And it’s still blooming. Amen.